FMCSA Will Allow Qualified 18-20 Year Olds To Drive Commercial Motor Vehicles Across State Lines in New Pilot Program

Matthew A. Smartnick By Matthew A. Smartnick, Robert D. Boroff

Chances are the majority of items you buy, or the parts to make them, were at one time on a truck. The American Trucking Associations estimates that there is a truck driver shortage of 80,000 drivers, a historic high. This shortage of truck drivers is estimated to surpass 160,000 by 2030. While the national shortage of truck drivers predates COVID-19, this shortage now coupled with the pandemic has played a significant factor in the present supply chain crisis.

FMCSA To Allow 18-2o Year Olds Drive Commercial Motor VehiclesIn response, part of Congress’ Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—signed into law by President Biden in November of 2021—mandated that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) establish an apprenticeship program for qualified 18, 19, and 20-year-old drivers, which would allow these drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate travel as long as certain conditions are met.

On January 14, 2022, the FMCSA, in accordance with Congress’ mandate, established the “Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program.” For participating motor carriers and drivers, the normal requirement under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation (“FMCSR”) 391.11(b)(1), restricting drivers under 21 from interstate travel, will be waived, allowing qualified 18-20 year old apprentice drivers that meet the program requirements to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate travel.  In order to be part of the program, qualified motor carriers must apply on the FMCSA website and the program will be limited to 3,000 drivers.

In addition to having proper operating authority and minimum levels of insurance, the requirements for a motor carrier to be a part of the program include: not being classified as a moderate or high risk motor carrier by the FMSCA; a satisfactory safety rating from the FMCSA; no open enforcement actions; and below national average crash and driver/vehicle Operations Out-of-Service (“OOS”) rates. The requirements to be an apprentice driver include not having the following in a 2-year period preceding the driver’s date of hire: more than one license; license suspended/revoked; any conviction of a traffic violation (other than parking) in relation to a traffic crash; and any conviction of other enumerated violations related to drugs/alcohol or negligent/reckless driving.

Before the apprentice driver is allowed to operate a commercial motor vehicle alone, the program requires that the apprentice driver go through two probationary periods with the motor carrier: an initial 120-hour period of on-duty time (80 hours driving a commercial motor vehicle) and an additional 280-hour period of on-duty time (160 hours driving a commercial motor vehicle). During both of these probationary periods, the apprentice driver must be accompanied at all times by an experienced driver (as defined under the program), and the commercial motor vehicle being operated by the apprentice driver must have certain technologies installed, such as forward facing video cameras and a governed speed of 65 MPH. Additionally, the motor carrier is responsible during these probationary periods for ensuring the apprentice driver is competent in the categories enumerated under the program, including but not limited to, speed and space management, safety awareness, hours of service compliance, backing and maneuvering in close quarters, pre-trip inspections, etc.

The program will last three years, and the FMCSA will report its findings to Congress. Participating motor carriers will have reporting requirements, including monthly reporting to the FMCSA on the apprentice driver’s activity.  The FMCSA has not yet announced the application process for the program; however, interested motor carriers should not wait to begin reviewing and, if need be, implementing the necessary policies and procedures to participate and comply with the program.

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